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Ask Aliya: Getting Executives on Board with Telecommuting During the Coronavirus Crisis

“Ask Aliya” is a column for lawyers who are the first legal hire at their company and need advice from an in-house lawyer who has been there before. Aliya Ramji was the director of legal and business strategy for Figure 1 Inc., a network used by more than one million healthcare professionals to share cases and collaborate. She is now a partner at McCarthy Tétrault, where she offers guidance on in-house law and startup businesses. To have your legal questions for startups answered, email [email protected] with "Ask Aliya" in the subject line.

Dear Aliya,

Some executives at my company are not taking the coronavirus crisis seriously. I would like to work from home and offer that option to the rest of the office. What steps should our company be taking and how do I get executive buy-in? 

A Scary Time

Dear A Scary Time,  

Measures for ensuring the safety of employees in the face of COVID-19 are evolving daily. If your colleagues weren’t taking the spread of the virus seriously last week or even yesterday, they should be now.  

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) finally labeled the outbreak a pandemic and governments across the globe have been responding accordingly. On March 16, 2020, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced heightened measures for the safety of all Canadians, including closing borders to international flights and urging Canadians to practice “social distancing.” That is, the act of voluntary isolation to slow the spread of the virus. As he explained in his statement:  

“By staying home, you can not only protect your health and that of those around you, but ensure that our healthcare professionals and our healthcare systems can focus on those who need their help.” 

On March 18, 2020, US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Trudeau mutually agreed to close the Canada-US border. If your company wasn’t taking COVID-19 seriously before, these developments should be telling.  

Each Canadian province and US state is facing its own unique risks that require unique responses. Depending on where your business is located, you should check in regularly with regulators and stay on top of announcements made from the offices of your respective premieres and governors. 

In Ontario, Canada, Premiere Doug Ford announced a state of emergency, requiring all bars, restaurants, facilities offering indoor recreational programs, public libraries, private schools, theatres, and other entertainment venues to close until March 31, 2020. In addition, all organized public events of over 50 people are prohibited. 

[Related: Adjusting to the New Normal: Teleworking]

If your workplace falls into any of the above categories, it is required by law to remain closed until the specified date. Similar announcements have been made across Canada and the United States. If your workplace does not fall within these requirements, but employees don’t feel comfortable going into the office, they may be able to refuse work under applicable health and safety legislation.

In short, all workers have a right to a working environment that protects their health and safety, and some legal commentators suggest that COVID-19 may enable employees to exercise their right to refuse unsafe work if certain conditions are met.

Luckily, most employers are following the guidelines offered by WHO or other national, state, and provincial regulators that allow high-risk employees, notably those with heart diseases, diabetes, and lung disease, to work remotely. If you belong in any of these categories, your request of working from home (WFH) will likely be approved.  

However, offering this option to the rest of the office may require further assessment. That said, not all employees may opt for working remotely. While WFH may allow for fewer interruptions from colleagues and reduced stress from commuting, many employees may not have a dedicated home work space, or may share their home with dependants, namely children or elderly, which would make concentrating on work-related tasks challenging.  

Obtaining executive buy-in may require addressing issues like the possibility of reduced productivity. Distractions at home or loneliness can make employees feel less motivated and less productive. Aside from productivity, prolonged isolation could also potentially have an impact on morale. Also, not having a well-equipped home office space may cause a temporary decrease in productivity, especially when employees are used to, for instance, double monitors or printers.  

[Related: 7 Steps for Coronavirus Litigation Preparedness]

At the same time, WFH can also reduce companies’ expenditures for their employees’ mileage if such expenses are covered in employment contracts. Companies may offset the expenses they will be saving regarding mileage by establishing a virtual employee allowance or reimbursement for things like high-speed internet, phone, electricity and other utilities, and office supplies.

It’s also worth considering that managers or employees may not be prepared for a WFH transition. For instance, managers may not be able to effectively monitor their employees’ productivity, or employees may face challenges maintaining self-motivation. Finally, keep in mind that executives’ reluctance to implementing a WFH policy may be owed to reasons other than irresponsibility or not taking COVID-19 seriously. 

In the meantime, companies may compensate for the delay in rolling out WFH policy for all by increasing everyday precautions such as making more sanitizing options available, and educating employees to self-quarantine if they are experiencing any flu-like symptoms or have recently returned from international travel. Your employer has a responsibility to ensure that you have access to a safe work environment, if they refuse to let you WFH, then they must be taking other necessary precautions to enable you to work. 

Stay healthy and safe.  


About the Author

Aliya RamjiAliya Ramji was previously the director of legal and business strategy for Figure 1 Inc. Presently, she is a partner at McCarthy Tétrault, where she offers guidance on in-house law and startup businesses. She also was a 2016 recipient of ACC’s Top 10 30-Somethings.

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